Housing unaffordability and neighbourhood opposition drives Vancouver's YIMBYs to support more density
Frustrated by homeowners' resistance, a growing number of renters are speaking out in favour of developments that would increase supply in the city's housing market
A new label is popping up in conversations about Vancouver real estate: YIMBY, or “yes in my back yard”.
“It’s a reaction to unaffordable housing prices,” Karen Sawatzky told the Straight. “It’s also in response to neighbourhood groups that are mostly made up of homeowners—that’s my perception—taking a stance against the development of rental buildings and multifamily buildings.”
Those groups would be NIMBYs in the dichotomous vocabulary that’s emerging from these debates. In contrast, YIMBYs support developments that add to the city’s housing supply (with an emphasis on affordable rental units) even when a project’s scale might not be a perfect fit with the neighbourhood for which it is proposed.
Sawatzky is an SFU student writing a master’s thesis on Airbnb and its effect on rental housing in Vancouver. On June 23, she attended a public hearing for a six-storey development proposed for the corner of Commercial Drive and East 18th Avenue.
“This is a 100-percent-rental building when we are so desperately in need of rental housing,” Sawatzky said. “And then all these homeowner people turn out and say, ‘No, we don’t want that. It’s too big; it’s ugly,’ et cetera. That’s frustrating.”
After the hearing for 3365 Commercial, Sawatzky got together with a few people who spoke in favour of the project and who expressed ideas similar to her own.
Adrian Crook lives downtown and works in video-game design. He participates in Vancouver’s housing debate via a blog called 5Kids1Condo, which documents how he and his five young children live in a 1,000-square-foot apartment. Crook told the Straight that nobody he has spoken with supports just any tower but that people are tired of different neighbourhood groups collectively opposing every new highrise.
“We are doing spot rezoning throughout the city and we keep coming up against the same issues over and over again,” Crook explained. “The argument of neighbourhood character is almost always a proxy war for just wanting to keep things the same.”
Controversy around 3365 Commercial embodies much of the NIMBY-YIMBY divide, he continued. But Crook noted that it is playing out across the city.
“Even modest developments like this, where it is really hard to poke holes in it, it is still being attacked,” he said. “There is a realization that unless some consistent voice comes from the more progressive camps here, you are going to see a lot of these developments die on the vine."
At 1102 Commercial Drive, a notice for a proposed five-storey residential building was recently scribbled over with graffiti. “Quit blocking sensible infill you fucking NIMBYs,” it reads. “I want my friends to be able to afford to live here and ‘Keep The Drive Alive.’ ”
In the West End, a 21-storey tower proposed for 1754–1772 Pendrell Street has attracted criticism despite the fact that there are a dozen buildings of similar heights nearby. The Joyce Area Residents Association was founded in opposition to a plan to allow towers on three corners around the Joyce-Collingwood SkyTrain Station even though transit hubs are designed for density. And so on.
Of course, neighbourhood groups don’t view themselves as NIMBY.
Lee Chapelle is a founding member of Cedar Cottage Area Neighbours (CCAN), the group leading the fight against the development proposed for 3365 Commercial. In a telephone interview, he described accusations of NIMBYism as “an attempt to shut down discussion”.
“It is a very facile argument,” he said. “It dismisses.”
Chapelle also questioned the accuracy of the term YIMBY. “It’s not really a YIMBY movement, per se,” he said. “It’s a YIYBY movement. They are saying ‘yes in your back yard’.”
Larry Benge is cochair of the Coalition of Vancouver Neighbourhoods (CVN), an umbrella group comprised of 28 smaller residents’ associations from around the city. He argued labels are unhelpful and that people should focus on the issues.
“If you’re opposed to something, you call somebody a name, like NIMBY,” Benge told the Straight. “And if you’re really smart in communications, you call yourself by some other name, so the two names can battle.”
CVN sent the city a letter in opposition to the development planned for 3365 Commercial.
“It’s not necessarily the building that we are opposing,” he said. “We are supporting the local neighbourhood residents’ association [Cedar Cottage Area Neighbours] in their opposition to it. It’s more about the way this is being conducted.”
The Twitter handle @yvryimby is active in online conversations about real estate, but there’s no formal group with a name like YIMBY Vancouver. Justin Jacobson, an investment analyst and a renter, said he was even a bit surprised to learn other people shared his concerns about opposition to new developments.
“I wasn’t aware that anybody else was going to speak in favour of it [3365 Commercial] when I showed up that day [June 23],” he recalled. “For me, it was organic. I had watched the prior hearings for this application and was disturbed by the nature of the discussion and knowing what the outcomes are when community groups get their way. It can destroy the potential for badly needed housing supply.”
Danny Oleksiuk grew up just two blocks from 3365 Commercial. A lawyer who now rents an apartment in Mount Pleasant, he told the Straight he spoke at the June 23 hearing after noticing YIMBY movements develop in other cities such as San Francisco and Portland.
Oleksiuk argued that homeowners’ opposition to density risks creating cities where zoning regulations only benefit the wealthy.
“The ‘no’ ends up meaning no small apartments, no townhomes, no row houses,” he said. “The ‘no’ ends up meaning zoning for millionaires and for multimillion-dollar single-family homes as the default. And that would be a terrible result.”